CUTS OFF THE HEADS, LOVES THE ELBOWS
John Waters as a Legitimate (but Please, Not Respectable) Photographer
By Mim Udovitch, THE NEW YORK TIMES
As a filmmaker, John Waters could always see both the trash in glamour and the glamour in trash. His earlier, underground movies, starring the plus-size drag queen Divine (who died in 1988), are as exuberant in their devotion to the outré as they were, and in some ways still are, shocking.
Starting with the commercial success of “Hairspray” (1988), now a Broadway musical, Mr. Waters’s movies began to move from the margins to the mainstream, but his iconoclasm is very much in evidence in “John Waters: Change of Life,” a retrospective of his photographs at the New Museum for Contemporary Art through April 15. Photographed straight off his television screen, these shots, rearranged and juxtaposed, wittily implode some aspect of the film, star or theme represented. (“Mental,” for example, shows nine actresses at the most loopily over-the-top moments of their respective Big Nervous Breakdown scenes.) The show also includes some early, rarely seen films, as well as samples from Mr. Waters”s vast collection of ephemera – publicity stills, books and other offbeat objects, like a toy electric chair.
In his art- and book-filled Greenwich Village apartment, Mr. Waters, 57, recently took a break from editing his next movie, about sex addicts who have suffered head injuries, to talk to Mim Udovitch about his lesser-known work as a fine artist.
MIM UDOVITCH How did you get started on these photographs?
JOHN WATERS I selfishly wanted a still from one of my own movies that I didn’t have, so I just took a picture off my television set in the dark – and it worked, to my amazement and shock. Then I started doing stills from other people’s movies and putting them together to make a new narrative. So basically I was a script doctor. I was a very severe one.
UDOVITCH Down to five frames.
WATERS Well, that’s what they say: high concept.
UDOVITCH And what was the first image you wanted?
WATERS It was of Divine in “Multiple Maniacs.” The piece is called “Divine in Ecstasy” and it was the moment between when Divine was raped by a woman and a female impersonator, and the one second after that when the Infant of Prague appeared to her. I wanted that one-second look on her face.
UDOVITCH I love that one. It looks like Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” There is a surprising crossover.
WATERS Well, look at another piece I have, “Movie Star Jesus.” It’s like an S & M bar – I mean, a nude man on a cross? It’s amazing that children and families put that over their beds. So I found every movie star image of Christ. It’s a very sexual thing. They’re all framed from below. It’s like a “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls shot, where you can look up a girl’s skirt.
UDOVITCH How about the genesis of “Sonny for President,” which depends on the viewer’s ability to recognize a series of photos of Sonny Bono through the years from the top several inches of his head alone?
WATERS Yes, you know you’re really famous if people can identify you from your bangs. I was with Sonny a month before he died, and his hair was still it. I believe if he hadn’t died, he could have taken that hair all the way to the White House.
UDOVITCH And what about “Sophia Loren Decapitated”? Where did you get that idea?
WATERS I got that idea because I read that Joan Crawford always did that, when she got divorced she kept the pictures in the frames in her house, she just ripped the husband’s head off. Which I thought was really a very artistic idea, actually. Especially if you didn’t have irony about it, which I don’t think she did. And I picked Sophia Loren because I don’t hate her and I don’t love her. I did recycle the heads, though, I used them in another piece about five years later. And ripping them off was fun, it was like being a stalker. It was like what you fear if you’ve ever done one interview and your picture’s in the paper, that someone is at home sticking pins in you or cutting your head off. In the art world, you want people looking at a picture and reading all sorts of things into it. You don’t want that in the movie world.
UDOVITCH And I’d like to mention, just because it’s so exquisite, “Grace Kelly’s Elbows.”
WATERS My abstract piece. I just wanted to show that you sometimes notice a detail about a star that’s incredibly obscure and that no one’s ever mentioned. Grace Kelly did have incredibly beautiful elbows.
UDOVITCH Not the loveliest body part for most people.
WATERS No, it’s really hard to have beautiful elbows. It’s my fetishizing one tiny detail of a star, or one percentage of a frame in the movie.
UDOVITCH Do you think it’s harder to be transgressive now than it used to be?
WATERS I’ve never tried to be. Transgressive – does that mean you change how people look at things? That would be the greatest flattery anyone could say to me. But I’m just setting out to do what I always do. First, I do it for myself. And then, maybe when you go to the movies after looking at my pictures, you can make your own movies in your mind. You can watch something and say well, that image could go here. You don’t have to like the movie. You can look at the lamps.
UDOVITCH How do you hope to redirect someone’s vision with the “Manson Copies” series, “Manson Copies Divine’s Hairdo,” “Manson Copies Brad Pitt” and “Manson Copies Richard Gere”?
WATERS Well, every five years Charles Manson has a parole hearing, and I watch it for one reason: he has a new look every time. So I watch him, then I find an unsuspecting movie star who happens to look exactly like him in that incarnation, and pair them together, to show that no matter what, Manson’s more famous. That’s a terrible thing to say. But basically, still, if you showed a picture of Brad Pitt and Manson to people, I think more people would identify Manson, which I think is a very frightening thing about American fame. This year, he wouldn’t come out for his parole hearing because they made him wear handcuffs. It was a fashion decision.
UDOVITCH You made the film of the Kennedy assassination starring Divine as Jackie Kennedy – from which you took the photographs for the “Zapruder” piece – in 1965. To parody that event only two years after it happened must have seemed incredibly radical.
WATERS Yes, and I still lived with my parents. It was on their suburban street. And, yes, people were really upset about it. I entered it in some festival in Baltimore, and they not only stopped the film, they called the Internal Revenue and reported me as being pernicious. I always remember the word because I was so excited by it. But to film that was worse than illegal, it was so disrespectful. And it was the same thing with eating feces in “Pink Flamingos.” There was no law against it, but it was worse than hard-core sex. That’s why I did it. They never could cut it, because there was no law, even though it is beyond any community standards.
UDOVITCH And still is. “Fear Factor” tries for the same effect, in a way – but your work is always very humane, and reality TV never is.
WATERS I’ve never seen a reality TV show in my life, I’m a true virgin.
UDOVITCH You’re not at all curious?
WATERS No. I’m in the Writers Guild. I refuse to watch reality TV.
UDOVITCH What’s your favorite piece of ephemera in the show?
WATERS Maybe the ceramic piece of Michael Jackson holding the baby over the hotel balcony. The National Enquirer ran a piece outraged by it. That’s how I knew there was such a thing to order.
UDOVITCH Wait. I thought that was, like, a Jeff Koonsian sculpture. It’s a commercial piece of merchandise?
WATERS Yeah. You can buy it right now, look online.
UDOVITCH Who would buy that?
WATERS I bought about 50 of them.
UDOVITCH Besides you.
WATERS I don’t know. I guess that’s why they put it in the show.
UDOVITCH Do you feel you have any mentors?
WATERS Tennessee Williams made me realize that everything they told me in school was a lie and I didn’t have to pay attention to it. Warhol certainly influenced me when he so wisely put homosexuality and drugs together, finally, where they belonged. Little Richard, because I wanted to be the white him in the hippie world. That’s why I have this mustache. And Jean Genet, of course. I don’t even remember that I named Divine after the character in “Our Lady of the Flowers,” but I’m sure I did. They made me have the nerve to do what I wanted to do, so that I didn’t care that I didn’t fit in, that nobody else really liked what I liked when I was growing up.
UDOVITCH Finally, tell me why you did the “Peyton Place – The Movie” piece.
WATERS Well, Grace Metalious was my first idol. And in the book, some phrase like “the V of Betty’s crotch” was the first dirty thing I can ever remember reading. But when the movie came out, any time there was something sexual they would cut to a tree blossoming, or if someone was frigid, a frozen lake. So I just did the cutaway shots. You look at it and think, what are these, bad National Geographic shots? But really, they’re filthy. They’re the shots that Hollywood couldn’t show.